by HILAL MIROn a clear spring day in the year 2000, the first year of my masters in journalism at Kashmir university, the class was taken to Sogam for a field trip. Zafar Hyderi, our esteemed teacher much respected for his integrity than scholarship was keen on students having practical experience. We were supposed to visit areas where only radio works because the mountains girding these areas don’t allow television signals from Srinagar Doordarshan to enter the homes. Imagine the relief of not having to watch 24X7 the official propaganda. Since Zafar Sir taught radio, these places provided him a cathartic vindication of the superiority of his medium (though secretly he might have aspired to make a name in TV). Such places are aptly called Shadow Zones. These could well be called shadow zones for other reasons too, as much of the barbarity unleashed by the state in such areas remains buried under shadows, itching to be put into words or images.
No sooner did we reach Sogam around noon that I spotted a man who worked as a domestic help for a Khoja family in Nawab Bazar, my native place in old Srinagar. He felt uneasy and asked me several times what brought us here. The reason for his tension soon appeared: a bearded Kashmiri gunman nourished by the local army unit (cleverly allowed by the state to be called Ikhwani or nawabadi etc.,) appeared with a light machine gun slung across his shoulders. Girls accompanying us grew nervous. Since I had been tasked with arranging lunch for the class, more than 35 of them, I was eager that we finish the wazwan bought from a restaurant in Lal Chowk and then study the shadow zones. On a slope, we spread a dastarkhwan and groups of four pounced on tramis.
Lunch over, an army major, probably a Keralite Christian as I could figure out from his nameplate needled to his left khaki shirt pocket, walked up to and greeted Zafar Sir. He had an unusually dark and large face accentuated by dark sunglasses so much so that a smile seemed to descend down his covered eyes and spread on the rest of the face. Whether the smile was friendly or fake, I couldn’t make out. Zafar Sir couldn’t hide his nervousness. He fumbled to explain the purpose of our visit and I don’t think the Major understood any of it.
The Major, thoroughly educated in administering a military occupation, instinctively seemed to have analysed the situation. Here is a bunch of impressionable students about to enter the media. Why lose the chance to educate this seemingly bright bunch of colonials about the “humanistic face” of Indian army. The Major then addressed us thus:
“This is a very dangerous area. We have orders to shoot anybody moving about during the night hours. But our relationship with the locals is so intimate that we can easily figure out who is who from their manner of speaking. So when a villager ventures out during the night for water or any other contingency, my boys don’t shoot as they can figure out that he is a local. And when he talks, my boys will say, ‘he is Ghulam Rasool’”.
A boy aged ten or eleven, clad in a ragged Khan dress and a torn sweater that could have scared away vultures, dashed into the circle we had formed around the Major. The boy had in his hand a stick he was using to propel a discarded rubber rim of a wheel, a favourite childhood pastime for the underprivileged. He listened to the conversation between the Major and Zafar Sir quite intently, and then, without an iota of fear in his innocent eyes, he said, “Hatav yuhav chhuv tur wanan, yimav khochhan, yimanav mithr pakaan (Hey, he is lying. They are scared; they piss in their pants).
We smothered our laughter. The Major probably got a drift of what the boy said. But he didn’t shed his colonial swagger and said in a patronising manner, “These boys are very naughty. They come up to us many a time in a day and say in our faces ‘kafiro, Kashmir hamara chhod do (infidels, leave our Kashmir). But they are only kids and we love them.”